Sunday, May 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a review

Did this movie make sense? Or were the holes really as big as they seemed to me.

I will admit upfront that I am not versed in the Marvel Comics Universe. Actually, I never really read comics because--as a word person--they only lasted about 6 minutes. I blew through them for the dialog, and the pictures might as well have been white space. So I don't have the background knowledge that might have been obvious if I read the source material.

That said, I have seen all of the current Avengers-adjacent movies, dating back to the first RDJ Iron Man, so I'm not completely ignorant. I am also a sentient being who lives in 21st Century America, so I do know about superheroes.

But this one? So much going on, and so much plot, which is never quite explained in a way that makes any sense to me. Some of this is probably going to be nitpicking, but some of these failures go to the whole premise of the movie.

1. What was the deal with that ship that was attacked by French mercenaries?

Many/most/all action movies start with an action set-piece, establishing relationships between characters and setting the plot into motion. In this case, Captain America and Black Widow are rescuing SHIELD hostages from a SHIELD ship which is cruising around the Malaysian seas. There is one officer, the bald, ethnically ambiguous "Jason Sitwell" (if he's an officer, why doesn't he have a title?) and some number of unnamed people. The French mercenaries stalk around, screaming threats that the killings are going to start in two minutes. None of the SHIELD employees makes any effort to free themselves, distract the mercenaries, scuttle the ship, anything. They all sit quietly--even the alleged "officer" Sitwell--hoping not to get picked as the first hostage to be killed.

Meanwhile, the head mercenary is allegedly trying to contact SHIELD to negotiate a ransom. But the offices are closed for the night? He's getting a busy signal?  Perhaps his call has been transferred to the night messaging service, which will take down his number and pass on the information in the morning?

I guess we are supposed to recognize that "Officer" Sitwell is a shady character, because he doesn't do anything to protect the people he presumably is leading. He does mutter under his breath a lot, though.

Cap and his team arrive, pick off the mercenaries, rescue the the hostages, and are about to get away when Black Widow fails to make rendezvous. She is busy downloading a bunch of data from the ship, "it's always a good idea to back up your hard drive" which leaves an opening for some more shooting and jumping through windows.

So--what the hell was that all about? Why does SHIELD even have a ship that cruises around the Malaysian peninsula anyway? What data does it have that doesn't exist elsewhere, and how did it get it?   What is this MacGuffin anyway?

Then, given what we know by the end of the movie, perhaps it was a Hydra run ship? So the Good Guy SHIELD faction thought it was fishy and staged the whole thing as a way to get to the data? That's the only thing that makes any sense to me, and I'm not sure it does make sense. but if the ship had information that was hidden from regular SHIELD access, and Nick Fury figured that out, then HE was the one who hired the mercenaries, AND he is the one who sent in Cap to "rescue" those hostages, BECAUSE the whole thing was an elaborate scheme to get Black Widow onto that ship to make copies of the data--then that should be much more clearly spelled out. Because it goes to the whole premise of the movie: that you don't know who you can trust.

Even that is heavily retconned, based on the fact that Robert Redford (in a comic book movie? Obviously, he's going to be the Bad Guy!) tells Cap that Fury is the one who hired the mercenaries, thus setting up Cap's dilemma. As such, it had to be true that Fury set up the situation, because otherwise, it just looks like a smooth dude in a suit doing what government officials always do in these kind of stories--try to make achieve their evil ends by making the Good Guys look bad.

So I think there was supposed to be a double twist there, but because it was so badly explained, it didn't look twisty at all. Robert Redford shows up in a comic book movie, wearing an expensive suit and handling glamorous technology, as the "Secretary" of some unnamed department, and he talks smack about Nick Fury. Nick Fury! The guy who has been behind the entire assemblage of Avengers; who has lost an eye in the service of Goodness; who is Samuel L. Jackson--and this movie thinks we are going to suspect him of doing nefarious Bad Guy Stuff? I don't think so!

2. Who is in charge here?

Redford's unnamed department raises questions as well. He's part of a "World Security Council"--but who is that? They clearly are not part of a single world government, since they talk about "national waters" and threats to their individual countries. But where does SHIELD get all this money to build all these incredibly huge helicarriers, to train all these quasi-military troops? I could kind of understand it if they were a strictly American operation, but the determinedly international nature of the "Council" makes it seem like it's like a U.N. force? Again--where does all this money for all this equipment come from? And how does this version of SHIELD line up with Tony Stark's ethical refusal to continue to sell arms?

At the end, when Black Widow is being grilled by blowhards in some kind of committee hearing, it's not a Congressional hearing (which is what it looked like it should be) because there was a huge logo on the wall that said "Department of Defense." But that was not a court martial--it was definitely people posturing in front of cameras. So who is in charge of SHIELD anyway? Given how much money they obviously have for technology and weaponry, somebody is going to have to have oversight to make sure the money is not wasted, at least.

3. Who ARE these SHIELD employees anyway?

Okay, so HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD. . .somehow. And turned people who thought they were working for an organization that kept people safe from Bad Guys, into people who would impersonate DC cops, use automatic weapons in the street, against their own boss, without question? Not one of those guys ever even questioned why they were using SWAT tactics against Nick Fury? In the middle of civilian DC???

Not one guy ever said "hey? Let's not attack him when he's inside his armored SUV on a public throughway. We know where this guy lives. We know where his office is. We know where he buys his suits, eats his lunch, takes his mom out for Mother's Day. Maybe we could be just a little less conspicuous about this?"

Nobody says "Wait, why are we attacking Captain Freaking America inside our work elevator?" Did anybody--anybody at all ever ask about "if we are the good guys, why are we trying to kill the symbol of our nation?" I can kind of understand why a guy like Robert Redford's character would be interested in preemptively killing identifiable bad guys--the whole Insight program just makes his job a whole lot easier, with a lot less paper work to boot. Sure--he can see that this is a way to clear that pesky in box, permanently. He's removed from the situation. He can sit back and pretend that the people he identified as "problems" (including Fury and Cap) just "go away" on his orders. So clean, so bloodless.

And then, there are the thugs who actually have to execute the orders. All the people who. . .acquired. . .the fake DC police cars and uniforms, the ones who pulled out the huge guns and the tripod for the battering ram, the ones who shot through city buses to try to hit the fleeing Fury, the ones who conducted the high speed chase through the streets--none of them ever once pulled a punch, thought better of maybe not incurring civilian casualties? Nope. Total ruthlessness.

So where did these guys come from? These are not people who were recruited after the aliens attacked New York, or thought they could help battle a power mad Loki. Because those people would have Fury's back. Those people would not just accept Pierce's order to murder their own people.

4. Teaser, or proof HYDRA is still evil?

Once the algorithm is loaded onto the helicarriers, a bunch of targets show up. They flicker by fast, but they are all on the eastern coast of the US. I saw the name of the President (Marvel version) show up as a target, and apparently "Tony Stark" was there as well. So--does this just prove that the "evidence" of future crimes is just wrong? Or are we going to see a criminal President in future movies?

This matters, because if the algorithm is wrong, or HYDRA is really just plotting to get into power, then the whole ethical question of preemptive strikes goes away. Pierce tries to sell the Council on the idea that Project Insight can prevent obvious evil by doing away with the criminals before the crime happens. If such a thing were possible, it is at least a compelling ethical dilemma. But if the whole system targets innocent people, then there is no dilemma, there is just killing and a huge power grab.

Which leads me to the next point.

5. What is all this "data" you think you have?

Natasha Romanoff downloads a bunch of "data" from the ship in the first set piece. What "data" was there? Who collected it, what was it used for, why was it being stored on a ship anyway? Later, in a stand-off with Pierce, he tries to talk her out of publishing the "data" because it will be damaging to her reputation as well. But what is it?  Oh, never mind, it's a much a MacGuffin as the "Tesseract" and "Aether" were in other Marvel movies.

But the big plot hole here is the problem of the "Zola Algorithm." Somehow, this guy seems to have dumped his brain into a bunch of computers which are housed in a secret underground bunker in an abandoned military base. From there--somebody (who?) has patched a USB port and presumably an internet connection (is this even possible? I doubt it) so Zola can data mine the world's digital trails to pick out which 20 million are security threats. (We have to also hand wave the possibility that there may be "threats" by people who are not on social media--hello Afghanistan!)

Apparently, nobody tested the algorithm? They just uploaded it onto weaponized helicarriers and accepted that whoever was named was worth killing? But. . .but. . .but--surely there were some big money donors (those helicarriers are hella-expensive!) and cronies and HYDRA leaders whose names WOULD have come up. Kind of awkward if the algorithm identifies somebody on the helicarrier itself and shoots into the body of the aircraft! Or reveals somebody's divided loyalties, right there, out in the open.

There is no way even an Alexander Pierce would authorize the uploading of an untested algorithm. That would require (among other things) absolute trust in Zola. And there is famously no honor among thieves. That program would have been vetted for political reasons, as well as routinely beta tested for bugs. Which again increases the number of people who would have had to be aware of the program, thus increasing the number of places it would have been challenged or leaked.

6. Winter Soldier, where have you been all my life?

According to several reviews I have read, the Winter Soldier is "Soviet trained"--presumably this is from the comics canon. But it raises some problems for a movie franchise that is set in the present/near future. Namely--there is no longer a "Soviet" bad guy, which is increasingly problematic the farther away we get from 1991, the date of the formal dissolution of the USSR. Scarlett Johannson --I mean, "Black Widow" would have been 7, far too young to have been KGB.

But let's assume we can also retcon an underground KGB that simply went underground, and while not officially KGB, was effectively so and that's who trained Natasha Romanoff. And Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier. How did Alexander Pierce get his hands on him? Where has he been being kept, and how did all that mind-wiping equipment get transported to the US, where he could be deployed? I'm absolutely not understanding how this guy gets from where he "died" in 1944 to where he's recognizing Steve Rogers while punching him out on a helicarrier. Is Winter Soldier part of HYDRA? Is he part of top secret SHIELD? Where has he been--physically--for the intervening 70 years? If he was a Soviet answer to Cap, what happened to him after 1991?

Yeah, I know. Just relax, it's only a movie.

Sure, but it's a movie that aspires to a bit more than just blowing things up. The script does take on questions of drone warfare, domestic surveillance, the costs of war, and the lost values of mid-Century America. I am asking for the mechanics of the plot to be explained, because unless they are explained, this is just a boxing match between two essentially invincible characters, and that's not something I would bother to go see. 

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